Fans in Melbourne can't get enough of their ice hockey lately, with packed houses greeting the local heroes, the Melbourne Ice.
This weekend they get a feast of top-flight hockey to sate their appetites, when the inaurgural Trans Tasman Champions League takes over the Medibank Icehouse in Docklands.
Four games over two days will test the top two teams from New Zealand and Australia, with Melbourne Ice and Newcastle North Stars pitted against the Southern Stampede and the Botany Swarm.
The tournament is a new concept that will run annually, alternating between the two countries, and played for the Trans Tasman Champions League Cup, newly designed and developed for the event.
Australian Ice Hockey League administrator Peter Lambert says benefits of the unique event, run under international rules, will offer a taste of "big time” hockey.
“Fans will enjoy 20 minute stop-time periods, meaning teams will need to play 3-4 lines to keep up the pace with the competition. Additionally, there will be up to two five-minute overtime (sudden death) periods before going to shoot out," Lambert says.
The Australian league is limited to 15-minute periods and sudden-death shootouts to determine the winner in event of a tie.
The New Zealand Ice Hockey League has been in operation since 2005, and the AIHL since 2000.
The Southern Stampede, based in Queenstown, has won two NZIHL championships (2005, 2006) and were runners-up in 2009 and 2011.
The Auckland-based Botany Swarm were champions in 2007, 2008, 2010 and 2011.
Newcastle is the powerhouse of the AIHL, having won four championships, while Melbourne is the reigning back-to-back champions, having defeated the North Stars 3-2 in an epic grand final last September.
AIHL Commissioner Tyler Lovering sees this weekend's event as important to his fast-growing sport.
“We're starting to fill seats quickly at events, our players are dedicated and everyone has a common goal to grow the sport," he says.
“This Australia versus New Zealand event shows the commitment of both leagues to see the sport grow and be as recognised by fans across both countries.”
Stampede captain Simon Glass said the tournament would be great for his team, describing it as a “fantastic drawcard” for the club to get better sponsorship and import players.
North Stars coach and general manager Gary Dore said the tournament was a “stepping stone” for his team as it ramped up for a tilt at the local finals.
“It gives us another tournament-type opportunity where the guys have to step up because we're there to win it, we want to win it, we're not just going through the motions,” he said.
The tournament is a test of the local teams, which will have to play juniors who get limited time in league matches.
Melbourne Ice star Jason Baclig said that injuries early in the season had meant Ice stars had been spread more across each line, and the experience gained was now providing the team with more depth.
His coach, Paul Watson, told the AIHL website that the Trans Tasman tournament would be a boon for his league-leading team.
“It's a good chance for them to get the sensation of playing in front of a good crowd against good opposition,” Watson said.
“We're playing three 20-minute stop time periods, real hockey, so that's essentially a whole extra period to look at players that sit on the cusp. We want to expose them.
“We'll get to challenge our youth and give them a stage to show their wares. It can only improve our depth and make us stronger.”
Trans Tasman Champions League schedule:
Saturday, July 7:
Melbourne Ice v NZ Southern Stampede at 4pm, NZ Botany Swarm v Newcastle North Stars at 7.30pm
Sunday, July 8:
Newcastle North Stars v NZ Southern Stampede at 4pm, Melbourne Ice v NZ Botany Swarm at 7.30pm